Friday, October 31, 2014

Ricky Rubio, Turnovers and the Casual Fan

Ricky Rubio can't shoot. I would imagine looking through basketball fans tweets during a Timberwolves game would reveal several tweets complaining about Rubio's shooting ability. And while it is true that Rubio's shooting leaves a lot to be desired, fans as usual focus on the "flashy" part of the game rather than the big picture.

When Miguel Cabrera won the triple crown, many fans were convinced that he HAD to be the MVP, because he had won the triple crown for goodness sakes! How could he not win it? It's simple; fans and writers and even "baseball experts" had been valuing the wrong parts of the game. Batting average, home runs and RBI make it easy for a casual fan to see who had a good season, but the issue is that these statistics are horribly outdated to determine real value on the field. Mike Trout has been a better player than Cabrera for 3 years now, because he runs the bases a lot better and he's been a good defender, while still adding a ton of value with his offense. The all-around game is more important than 3 arbitrary numbers that were picked more than 100 hundred years ago. That's a fact.

Now, Rubio isn't close to an MVP type player. I'm not comparing him to Trout or Cabrera, just pointing out that casual fans tend to value the wrong statistics quite often. That's not their fault; a lot of fans just want to watch the game and cheer for their team. All the statistics and learning what each stat really means can be a turn off for fans, I understand that.

People like Bill Simmons, who get paid ridiculous amounts of money to talk about sports, don't get the benefit of the doubt though. Simmons continues to rail against Rubio's game because "he can't shoot!" and acts as if every point guard needs to score 20 points a game. He doesn't. Simmons should know this. Steve Nash, even at his peak in Phoenix, had games where he'd score single digit points but dole out 15-17 assists with very few turnovers. Nash was a blackhole on defense. Rubio is one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and unlike most players he gets a lot of his steals without gambling out of position (think Corey Brewer or Chris Paul) but rather by reading passing lanes while remaining in front of his defender. Rubio's basketball IQ is a huge reason for his solid defense, and his length helps a lot too. Rubio's 191 steals led basketball last season, and while steals were often considered an "empty stat" because of the gambling involved in getting the steals (players will get backdoored and allow a basket, foul trouble, etc.) but Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight blog did an interesting study on the value of the steal this past March. That's well worth the read. Long story short, it's far from an empty stat.

Rubio's assist numbers remain near the top of the league as well. He's gotten less flashy since his rookie year, and while that's less fun to watch, it should in theory help him cut down on his turnovers. As a point guard, controlling the offense is very important. It's difficult to win close games if your point guard is turning the ball over too much, because every possession counts.*

*Long rant: Flip Saunders has been terrible through two games as a coach. In the 3rd quarter of the season opener against Memphis, Flip thought it'd be a good idea on three consecutive possessions to call a post up for #1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins had barely shot the ball to this point, and seemed very passive. That's not entirely unexpected from a 19-year-old rookie who had trouble exerting himself even at the collegiate level. 

Wiggins plays in the flow of the game, he's not the kind of player who can just be isolated against someone and score. At least he's not that kind of player yet. Making matters worse, Saunders made these play calls despite TONY ALLEN being the man guarding Wiggins. Allen is probably the league's best defender, and if not the best he's very close. Having a raw rookie with little offensive tools go one on one with Tony Allen is just stupid. Wiggins was, as one would expect, stopped on all 3 plays. That's three possessions Flip basically just gave away. The Wolves would lose the game by just 4 points. His explanation? That he wanted Wiggins to "go against the best" to get his feet wet. In the first game of his career. Yes, the Wolves are unlikely to make the playoffs, but guess what? You don't "play for the future" in game 1. Wait until the team is 2-9 or 5-17 or something before you give away possessions in a close game. Let Wiggins get his feet wet against a poor defender, so his confidence will improve.

And in game 2, with the Wolves holding a 5 point lead with 45 seconds left, Saunders called for the Wolves to intentionally foul Andre Drummond. Drummond is a very poor free throw shooter. He's shot just 40% from the line in his 3 seasons in the NBA. Simple math dictates that would give him just a 16% chance of making both shots, but the Wolves held a 5 point lead. Why give the Pistons a chance at 2 free points with the clock stopped, when they're hardly an efficient offensive team anyway? As one would expect, Saunders strange decision nearly backfired into the worst possible scenario. Drummond made his first free throw, cutting the lead to 4, then missed the second one rather badly. Detroit got the rebound, swung the ball around, and got a wide open three point look. It hit the back of the rim, because the Pistons aren't a good team either, and the Wolves rebounded the ball and escaped. But had the 3 point shot gone in, Saunders would have given the Pistons a 4 point possession in a situation they were unlikely to even score 2 points. It made no sense at the time, and looked even worse a few seconds later. Saunders made a few solid moves as GM this summer, including the haul for Kevin Love. It's just too bad one of his other moves was hiring himself as coach.

Rubio's biggest problem is his turnovers, not his shooting. Shooting improves over your career generally, especially among guards who can't shoot as rookies. Jason Kidd is the best example, in my opinion. He entered the league highly regarded, but he couldn't shoot. He was a great floor general from day one, and his all-around game off-set the poor shooting. Rubio's game is very similar to a young Jason Kidd's.

True shooting percentage (TS%) is a stat that measures shooting efficiency between two pointers, three pointers and free throws. It's literally what it says it is; the players true shooting percentage. Kidd's first three seasons his TS% were 47%, 47% and 50%. His 3 point shooting over that same time frame? 27% as a rookie, 34% and then 37%. He was slowly improving each season.

Rubio's numbers over his first three years? His TS% was 47.5% as a rookie, then 48% and 49% last season. And while Rubio's three point shot hasn't improved as steadily as Kidd's did, he's shot 34%, 29% and 33% over this first three years. Rubio is a better free throw shooter than Kidd was, which shows that if Rubio can put it together, there's no reason to think his shot can't improve at least to the level that Kidd's did. Kidd didn't shoot 40% from 3 point land until he was 35 years old. But by becoming a better mid-range shooter and hitting about 35% of his three's, Kidd was a very valuable player thanks to his all-around game.

And I'm not just cherry picking Jason Kidd because he improved over his career. I chose Kidd because that was the comparison Rubio received when he was drafted, and five minutes of research will show any casual fan that shooting improves over a career, at least among guards. Kidd is the best example, but certainly not the only one.

Anyway, Rubio's issue is turning the ball over too much. Rubio's turnover percentage (The number is the percentage of turnovers a player would commit per 100 possessions) has been poor each season. He's been remarkably consistent, posting a 22.2, 21.4 and 21.8 turnover percentage in his first three seasons. For someone who can't shoot, it's almost impossible to turn the ball over more than 1/5 of the time and still be above average. Rubio has been slightly above average, thanks in large part to his defense.

For comparison's sake, Chris Paul's turnover percentage is generally between 12 and 14%, while players like John Wall and Jrue Holiday have percentages between 16 and 18%. Even JJ Barea is only at 15.6%. 20% or above is simply too high for a point guard, especially one with the basketball IQ and court vision of Rubio.

The good news is that Kidd is again a great comparison. Kidd's first three seasons were a little less turnover prone than Rubio, posting 20, 19 and 19% in those three seasons. Kidd's fourth season was bad as well, but he took a huge leap in his fifth season and would spend the next 9 seasons posting a far more acceptable 17.8% turnover percentage. If Rubio can make a 10% improvement on his turnover rate (dropping it from 22% to about 19 or 20%) and just a 2 or 3% improvement on his true shooting percentage over the next two or three seasons, the Wolves will likely have an elite point guard because of his all around game.

Fantasy sports have caused us to think of scoring as the be all end all, but players who do several things well (even if they can't score) are oftentimes more valuable than a player who scores at a high rate but does little else. Watching Rubio clank open mid range jumpers and his awkward release can get frustrating, but patience is key. As a Timberwolves fan, patience is often necessary. Rubio will continue to get better and better, and while he's unlikely to ever become the kind of scorer Steve Nash was, his all around game should be comparable to Kidd's when all is said and done.

Just please, stop complaining about Rubio's shooting. It's unorthodox, especially compared to the American raised point guards, to have a player who doesn't want to score first. And that's the biggest problem. You can't see Rubio's great defensive positioning causing a turnover in the box score, and you don't see the kind of hustle play he makes every game chasing down a fast break, causing a missed layup or two. But it's very easy to see that he shot 2-9 from the field and 1-5 on threes. Please, next time you see Rubio with a poor shooting game, just remember he's likely contributing in EVERY OTHER FACET of the game. Ricky Rubio is far from the Timberwolves problem, and is far more likely to be a major part of the solution. Don't jump off the bandwagon because he doesn't hog the ball like Kyrie Irving.